The Aqualung, better known as Self-Contained-Underwater-Breathing-Apparatus (SCUBA), was developed in 1943 by an engineer Émile Gagnan, and a young Naval Lieutenant, Jacques Cousteau. It consisted of a compressed air tank, two hoses, and a mouthpiece that regulated the air pressure as you breathed in. It revolutionised underwater exploration and photography and Jacques Cousteau went on to become a household name for his underwater films of the wonders of the oceans.
I first learned to SCUBA dive in 1968 while a student at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. We used it to explore the marine life of the Mediterranean for my marine biology classes that school year. I learned on those awkward, double-hose contraptions, but now days the technology has significantly improved in terms of effectiveness and equipment safety and single hose regulators are commonplace.
But what has not changed in SCUBA diving is the human physiology of remaining underwater for extended periods of time at depths where the pressure on the body greatly exceeds the normal surface pressures we are accustomed to every day. In essence, the deeper you descend and the longer you stay submerged breathing from the air tank, gases accumulate in your blood stream due to the excessive water pressure acting on the body. It’s like making carbonated water by pumping air into water under pressure, and when the pressure is released, bubbles form. And the normal air we breathe is made up of 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen and a small amount of other gases, so nitrogen accumulates more than other gases in the blood under pressure.
Once a significant amount of nitrogen is dissolved in the blood stream, it must be slowly dissipated before returning to the surface, otherwise a sudden decrease in pressure by surfacing too quickly results in the nitrogen gas forming bubbles in the blood stream. These bubbles circulate throughout the body via the circulatory system and can get trapped in joints, organs and the brain, blocking blood flow and causing what is commonly referred to as “the bends” or decompression sickness. This is not only extremely painful, but also fatal to those divers who surface too rapidly.
The safe solution to this problem is through a process called “decompression stops” on the way up to the surface, and physiologists have worked out exactly how much time must be spent at certain depths on the way up in order to let the dissolved nitrogen gas escape though normal breathing. Basically a rope is suspended from the dive boat with markers every 10 meters or so to indicate the stopping points, where divers must remain for a few minutes to breathe off the accumulated nitrogen gas.
The Pressures of Leadership
Those in senior leadership positions in organizations tend to function almost constantly in a high pressure environment. They start early in the morning, usually with phone calls to staff in locations around the globe, then race from meeting to meeting with little time in between, more conference calls, lunch with clients or Wall Street, more meetings, a dash to the airport, usually a conference call once they reach the hotel late at night, a few hours sleep, and the treadmill start again early the next morning with a client breakfast and a full day of more meetings before it’s back to the airport. And even on weekends the phone calls and emails keep coming. Perhaps there is a social/business function Saturday evening, and hopefully a dinner with the family and children, then the week starts again.
Sure most executives take a several week vacation each year and get some “down time” then, but what about all the accumulated pressure that builds up between those rare relaxing vacations?
Leaders need to decompress regularly otherwise they run the risk of making poor decisions.
If leaders don’t take the time to decompress, that is to have regular, uninterrupted thinking time, time for reflection, time for forward thinking, time to explore multiple options without time pressures, then it is not uncommon for good leaders to make bad decisions.
The reality is that important decisions made by intelligent, responsible people with the best information and intentions are sometimes hopelessly flawed. ~Professor Sidney Finkelstein
Most decisions in business are a product of information analysis, pattern recognition based on past experiences, and emotional attachments (see an excellent article in the Ashridge Journal on why good leaders make bad decisions). Working together in a stress-free, non-pressured environment, these three ingredients often ensure quick and appropriate decisions.
However, when a leader is stressed and under pressure, the objective analysis often gets little attention due to time pressures and past patterns and emotional attachments take the lead. And under pressure and stress, past patterns and emotional attachments get distorted and stretched out of shape. Thus it is not uncommon for good leaders to make bad decisions.
The Need for Leadership Decompression
I have found that most business executives and leaders don’t fully understand or appreciate the need for “decompression” time. Time to reflect, to sort out competing agendas and conflicting information, time to make 1+1=3. Most of their diaries are controlled by others, with little time for reflection and thinking, thus the over reliance on pattern recognition and emotional triggers.
Like SCUBA divers, it is important for those in leadership and decision-making positions to decompress, to have regular intervals of quiet time, reflection time, thinking time. The key to this is for the leader to take back control of their calendar and diary. To purposefully schedule time daily for “decompression stops”.
The mental health and well-being of the leaders is directly proportional to the health and effectiveness of the business.
What does your daily diary look like? If it’s packed to the brim you may be sub-optimizing your real leadership capabilities and effectiveness.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!